By Sean Jackson
Recently officials from U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that cellphone surveillance devices disguised as towers around Washington D.C. were most likely placed by Israel to listen in on sensitive matters in the White House and other locations.
The miniature devices, called mobile subscriber identity-catchers or IMSI-catchers (also known as StingRays), can capture call content, as well as all content being emitted by mobile devices. The devices mimic mobile phone towers which then tricks devices to send the location and identity of the devices owner to the IMSI-catcher.
Politico reported that three former senior U.S. officials, whose names were withheld, have corroborated that the devices were indeed planted in strategic locations near the White House in efforts to intercept sensitive data, and were likely placed to spy on President Donald Trump. There are no indications of whether the efforts attributed to the Israeli government were successful or not.
While the attribution to Israel in this incident has been made by former officials, the installation of IMSI-catchers is a common issue in Washington D.C. In May 2018, Department of Homeland Security official Christopher Krebs wrote to Senator Ron Wyden about the potential threat of IMSI devices, and the difficulty in attributing the devices to a government or organization.
The letter states, “This technology can be used for both lawful and unlawful purposes. While the NPPD [National Protection and Programs Directorate] pilot did observe anomalous activity that appeared consistent with IMSI-catcher technology within the NCR, including locations in proximity to potentially sensitive facilities like the White House, NPPD has neither validated nor attributed such activities to specific entities, devices, or purposes.”
While former U.S. officials make allegations of Israel’s planting of these devices, officials from Israel deny all claims. Israeli Embassy spokesperson Elad Strohmayer stated, “These allegations are absolute nonsense. Israel does not conduct espionage operations in the United States, period.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also denied the claims about the devices, telling reporters, “We have a directive, I have a directive: No intelligence work in the United States, no spies… And it’s vigorously implemented, without any exception. It is a complete fabrication, a complete fabrication.”
Daniel Benjamin, former Obama state department official and director at the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth told Politico, “The Israelis are aggressive intelligence collectors, but they have sworn off spying on the U.S. at various points and it’s not surprising that such efforts continue.”
Benjamin recalls meeting with a former head of Mossad, a major Israeli intelligence agency, who suggested that Israel didn’t spy on the U.S. “I just told him our conversation was over if he had such a low estimate of my intelligence.” Benjamin said.
While the Israeli government denies all claims of involvement in planting the ISMI-catcher devices, there has been no official statement made by the White House or other U.S. Intelligence agencies to corroborate the former senior U.S. officials’ claims.